We’re all shaped by our cultures and backgrounds. That’s often where we get our assumptions and ways of looking at the world. Of course as we grow and mature and have life experiences we also broaden our perspectives, but our culture plays a critical role in who we are as people. We see that in crime fiction just as we do in real life. Part of what makes fictional sleuths interesting and unique is that they reflect their cultures. That’s why characters whose voices are culturally distinctive can be fascinating and realistic. The risk in this is that if the author is too obvious about that aspect of a character, then the character can seem flat and stereotyped – not good things. What’s more it can seem unrealistic; after all, there’s a lot of diversity in any culture. On the other hand, culture is a part of all of our lives, and authors shouldn’t hesitate to give their protagonists culturally distinctive voices. If culture is a part of the whole package that makes up a character, then it can lend to depth and richness in that character. And it can add to the story.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple has a distinctly English voice. And it isn’t just in the words she chooses. In her views, her lifestyle, her customs and her interests, she reflects the assumptions of the English village culture of her era. Her way of getting to know people, her reflections about what’s happening around her (I particularly like The Mirror Crack’d on that score) and her general outlook are all quite English. Of course, Miss Marple is a product of her time too. But instead of repeatedly reminding us of her culture, Christie weaves that aspect of Miss Marple’s character more subtly into her personality. Because Miss Marple is such an effective fit for her setting it can be hard to remember how culturally distinctive her voice is. But it is. Try this: imagine Miss Marple, for instance, as a Swedish amateur sleuth. She wouldn’t work nearly as well as a character because that’s not her voice.
Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano’s Sicilian culture is an important part of his character. His sense of humour, his lifestyle, his customs, all are deeply affected by his culture. Even his pragmatic way of getting things done professionally is distinctly Sicilian. And that’s part of what makes him unique as a character. For instance, here’s an observation about him that Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi makes about him during a telephone conversation in The Scent of the Night:
‘At your service, Mr. Commissioner.’
‘Come here immediately.’
‘Give me an hour at the most and I’ll – ’
‘Montalbano, you may be Sicilian, but surely you studied Italian at school. Don’t you know the meaning of the adverb ‘immediately?’’
‘Just a second, I’ll need to think that over. Ah, yes, it means, ‘Without interval of time.’ Am I right, Mr. Commissioner?’
‘Spare me the wit. You have exactly fifteen minutes to get here to Montelusa.’
That snippet reflects the subtle way in which Camilleri shows us how Montalbano is the product of his culture. It would be very hard to imagine him as, say, a cop for the NYPD.
But Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct team are very much New York-style cops. They reflect the culture of that part of the US in a lot of ways. The way they go about their jobs, the way they interact with people, and their views and attitudes are very much East Coast U.S. north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Their speech patterns and shared understanding reflect the culture too. Here for instance is a snippet from Hail to the Chief, in which Steve Carella and Bertram Kling are called to the scene when six naked bodies are found in a ditch in the middle of winter. One of the on-the-scene cops, Monaghan, says,
‘Got yourself a regular massacre this time.’…
‘Little Big Horn,’ Monroe [the other on-the-scene cop] said.
‘My Lai,’ Monaghan said.
The detectives, cops and other characters of the 87th Precinct have distinctive American voices. Could you imagine them, for instance, as members of the Sûreté du Québec? And yet, McBain creates those distinctive voices in subtle ways, so that they become part – an important part, but only part – of these characters’ personalities.
In the same way as the folks from the 87th Precinct wouldn’t work in the Sûreté du Québec, it would be hard to imagine Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache anywhere else. His world view, attitudes, lifestyle and interaction patterns are distinctly Québécois. For instance, in A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Gamache and his team investigate the Christmastime murder of newly-famous author CC de Poitiers, who moved to the rural town of Three Pines shortly before her death. At one point, there’s a domestic scene in which Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are discussing the case over a fireside dinner of boeuf bourgignon over egg noodles and a basket of sliced baguette. Here’s just a line or two of their conversation as they talk about de Poitiers and her husband Richard Lyon:
‘‘What a strange couple,’ said Reine-Marie… ‘I wonder why Richard and CC stayed together…’
‘I do, too…Have you heard of her?’
‘Never. But she might be known in the English community.’’
Gamache has certainly been shaped by his culture. But Penny shows us that part of his personality in subtle ways that are woven into his character. And that makes his voice all the more distinctive.
Angela Savage has chosen a fascinating way to give her PI sleuth Jayne Keeney a distinctly Australian voice. Keeney is an ex-pat who lives and works in Bangkok. Her world view, opinions and way of looking at life are uniquely Melbourne. She’s learned to adapt to life in Thailand. She speaks fluent Thai, eats in the way the locals eat, and understands the culture and ways in which one is expected to interact. And yet she hasn’t lost her own sense of identity, and Savage shows us this by, if I can put it this way, contrasting Keeney with the local people she meets. That approach allows Savage to give Keeney her uniquely Australian voice and outlook without constantly reminding the reader of it. Instead, she weaves Keeney’s culture through her personality.
And that’s the way it is in real life. We’re shaped by our cultures and our assumptions and world views are a product of them. Fictional characters wouldn’t be realistic if that weren’t true of them too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Larson’s Take Me or Leave Me.